Robert Ballesteros’ prosthetic right arm, a battery-operated bionic marvel in its day and still better than most current government-approved issue, sat in a plastic box in his closet for the past 14 years.
“I only used it for a short time,” the 50-year-old Ripon man said.
He injured his right wrist while working at a Bay Area shipyard in the 1990s. Surgeons implanted a steel plate hoping to stabilize and strengthen the wrist, but his body rejected the foreign object. By 2000, he’d had 16 operations, including a series of incremental amputations that left him with a stub of an arm below the elbow. He tried to use the bionic arm, which reacts to muscles and pressure, but the remaining part of his real arm to the elbow had atrophied too much to control the bionic one. So he gave up on it and went to a hook instead. The bionic one went into storage.
“I didn’t want to give it back to the prosthetic company,” Ballesteros said. “They’d just sell it again.”
Nor did he want to sell it himself, like a limb you might come across in a collectible store or a garage sale. He suspected his workers’ compensation insurer might not cotton to that, since the prosthetic arm cost $30,000 new when he got it in 2001.
“So I decided I’d try to find someone to give it to, another amputee,” he said. “I wanted to bless someone with it. I surfed the net looking for a veteran or someone who’d been in an accident. I met some, but they’d lost their left arm, not their right.”
On Tuesday, he and a friend went to lunch in Ripon. As they emerged from the restaurant, he looked across the parking lot and saw a man in a wheelchair, right leg missing just below the knee, left leg missing at the knee and his arm – his right arm – gone just below the elbow.
“I yelled, ‘Hey, fellow amputee!’ and I showed him my hook,” Ballesteros said. “He saw me, and we immediately clicked.”
That is how Ballesteros met fellow amputee, fellow Ripon resident and fellow 50-something Rick Ames. Within minutes, Ballesteros knew he’d found the person who could use and appreciate the prosthetic arm.
“I’ve been looking for you for years,” he told Ames. “I wanted to make this personal.”
On Thursday afternoon, Ames sat in his motorized wheelchair in his living room, dabbing tears away with a red bandanna as Ballesteros toted in the plastic box. It contained the bionic arm, a pincher attachment and several rechargeable batteries. More so, it contained a new friendship based on a common bond of two men dealt similar misfortunes in their lives, experiencing the depths of despair, worries about their futures and their families, and the resilience needed to get through it all.
Ames, 53, simply is newer at being an amputee. Black and white photos on the living room wall of their home depict a different time, a more joyful and less apprehensive time. In one, Ames stands on legs that are now a memory, his now-gone right arm wrapped around his wife, Summer. A year ago, he worked as a heavy equipment mechanic. Then, in July 2015, he entered a Sacramento hospital with atrial fibrillation, a heart condition. The blood-thinning medication they gave him did just the opposite. It caused massive clotting, damaging his circulation so badly in his legs and right arm that they had to be amputated to save his life.
“I actually flat-lined for 30 seconds,” Ames said.
Life, as he’d known it, changed forever. Seven months later, he’s awaiting basic prosthetic legs delayed, he said, by bureaucratic red tape. He knows he’ll have many hours of pain and frustration ahead when he learns to walk again, but is up to the challenge. Same with the artificial right arm, which would have been basic as well if not for Ballesteros, who handed it to Ames and explained how it works. He told Ames to take it to his own doctor to have a new socket fitted for securing it to the remaining end of his right arm.
Ballesteros also brought advice, stories of his own victories and setbacks, hope and a message Ames said he is just beginning to understand:
“When somebody says, ‘You can’t do that,’ prove ’em wrong,” Ballesteros said, because he has. After losing his hand and most of his forearm, Ballesteros owned a body shop in San Lorenzo, painting buses and trucks. He moved his family to Ripon and commuted to work, and business was good for a time. He closed the shop in 2010 not because of his disability but due to the recession.
A guitarist since he was a young boy, Ballesteros began playing again when a friend used a cat leash and some fishing line to fashion a guitar pick holder, followed by a better version using a Velcro strap attached to his pre-empted arm. He started playing in bands and taught himself to play the drums as well, using sports wrap to attach the drumstick to his right arm. He does the same with a shortened pool stick to play billiards. He plays in a band called “Bad Neighbors.”
“You have to be creative,” he said. And cherish even the smallest of victories, which Ames can appreciate.
Told he wouldn’t be able to get in and out of the family SUV, Ames and wife Summer simply made it happen one day.
“We took a victory lap around town (Ripon),” he said. “It’s mind over matter.”
The trip he took in his motorized wheelchair to the store Tuesday, his wife strolling alongside, proved equally special. That is when Ballesteros spotted him across the parking lot, yelled to him and they met for the first time. Turns out their children attend school together, with two of them in the same class.
They easily could have become friends anyway. But their common disabilities – and Ballesteros’ desire to find his old prosthetic a new limb – created instant buddies.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” Ames said, nodding toward Ballesteros. “It was fate. Ripon has great people you don’t find like that in other towns.”
Likewise, Ballesteros finally bade farewell to his old artificial arm, and he couldn’t be happier.